by TeMika Grooms
We live in times when the publishing industry has been challenged to meet creator and consumer demands. This includes a strong call to action to employ professionals and publish writers and illustrators with more diverse backgrounds and stories. Imprints are one way to address this need. Andrea and Brian Pinkney’s Bright Brown Baby imprint through Scholastic and the eponymous Denene Millner Books, a Simon & Schuster Books for Young Readers imprint, are publishing companies lighting a bright pathway for the future of children’s books for young readers.
In preparing to create a thoughtful interview highlighting these two imprints, I dove down the research wormhole to explore their current work, as well as the history of publishing amongst African Americans in the United States. This history is long, yet not highlighted with enough frequency.
Dr. Carter Godwin Woodson, often referred to as the Father of Black History, is noted for innumerable accomplishments in his lifetime. Of key importance to this article, he lobbied for Black History week, long before the establishment of Black History Month in the United States. He also founded Associated Publishers in 1921, the first documented African-American book publishing company. Several publishers have followed his legacy by focusing on historical, social and cultural documentation while expanding the literary works by people of color.
It felt important for me to establish the significant cultural roots of Denene Millner Books and Bright Brown Baby as they help to reshape children’s book publishing. These imprints will follow in the lineage of Dr. Woodson and many other publishers as they entertain, educate and illuminate black children through the words and images within their books. This is important work; not just for the readers who are reflected in the pages but for children of every background who are exposed to them through reading.
It was my pleasure to interview Denene Millner and Andrea and Brian Pinkney to learn more about their publishing companies.
Please share with our readers what you publish and what inspired you to start your own imprint?
Denene: I’m Denene Millner, vice president and publisher of Denene Millner Books, an imprint I founded in 2017 with the specific goal of creating books that celebrate the everyday humanity of Black children and families. At the time, I was knee-deep in the blogging world, running my own parenting website, MyBrownBaby, and fresh off penning an ethics and etiquette column for Parenting magazine. It was through that work that I became a parenting expert of sorts, specifically focused on what it means to raise Black children in America, particularly in the age of The Obamas, Trayvon Martin, the Black Lives Matter Movement and such. I grew a large following of Black mothers who’d been searching for parenting information specific to the things we as African Americans deal with and think about while raising our kids, and figured that, as an author with a bunch of author friends, the audience would be ripe for Black books that celebrate the beauty of our children’s lives–beyond the stereotypes, tropes and typical Black picture books that tended to land on bookstore bookshelves. I came to the thought right around the time that a colleague and publisher, Agate Publishing’s Doug Seibold, was looking to start a children’s book imprint at his company. After a few discussions and some strategizing, we agreed to partner and start Denene Millner Books, with the goal of opening doors for Black authors and illustrators who wanted to tell the kinds of stories I wanted to publish. What we put our mind to, we accomplished. I am proud of that and grateful to Doug for seeing the vision.
Andrea and Brian: Bright Brown Baby is the brainchild of Orchard and Cartwheel Books Vice President and Publisher Liza Baker. It was Liza’s idea to create a new series of picture books and board books celebrating families of color and the joy-filled experience of welcoming babies into the world. We were thrilled to be invited by Liza and Creative Director Patti Ann Harris to create the line of books under their publishing leadership. As a married couple, we’ve published nearly 70 books between the two of us, ranging from picture books to poetry, nonfiction to novels. And now – Bright Brown Baby! The collection includes a hardcover treasury edition and a series of sturdy spin-off board books. With affirming themes that remind little ones how beautiful, precious and cherished they are, and featuring a wide array of Black and Brown families, this is a collection for every loving caregiver eager to tell their bright brown babies how amazing they are, right at the start!
Denene, congratulations on the Caldecott Honor for Me & Mama by Cozbi A. Cabrera! It is one of many accomplishments for Denene Millner Books. In reviewing your picture books, I found myself drawn in by the texture and color of the words and images. The characters in your picture books are true to life and I see them in my community. They are powerful, yet common. They are varied and beautiful. What are your standards for curating book titles?
Denene: The standards are exactly as you see them on DMB pages! I look for books that speak specifically to our everyday experiences as Black humans–how we love on our children, how our children learn, grow. Are. I’m a firm believer that Black children need to see books that reflect their everyday experiences, which aren’t any different, really, from the experiences of every other human, no matter the race, but still remain all-too-elusive in the larger context of books that make it to bookstores. Books about Black firsts, our heroes, our roles in the Civil Rights Movement, our overcoming slavery and Jim Crow–all of those are incredible tools for giving our children context to our history and its import. But I’m a firm believer that our children also deserve to read plenty of stories about everyday things like going to school, making friends, overcoming fears, loving and being loved by family–all the things that are specific to humans, but told in a way that directly recognizes culture, heritage and race. Our children need to see themselves in the now, as their full, colorful, beautiful selves. Not as a trope. Not as a stereotype or overcoming one. Not as downtrodden and fighting to be seen. They deserve to just… be. Full stop. That comes through in the words but also in the gorgeous illustrations. I’m a HUGE art lover and I love to see gorgeous art reflected on the page–lots of color, texture, fine art. Just lots and lots of pretty and Blackness on the page.
Pretty Brown Face was a cherished board book in our household. This book of affirmation includes a mirror at the end that allowed my daughters to witness their own beautiful selves within the book. It was a keystone in developing my now confident and accomplished daughters. How do you ensure this type of impact through your books?
Andrea and Brian: The Pretty Brown Face board book was published twenty-five years ago. We were young parents then, with two new babies. We wanted to create an affirmation for our daughter and son, and for kids and families everywhere. Pretty Brown Face, and the companion books in the series, are love letters to Black children, expressed through poetry and art. This is true of each book we publish – messages of self-love and positivity are at the core. In each and every book we create we’ve held to a simple, yet powerful creative commitment. Which is, wherever possible, show the faces of Black people. Kids see what they see, and they don’t see what we neglect to show them. This is especially true for newborns and toddlers. We want our narratives and depictions to encourage kids to rejoice in their own beauty. In the case of Pretty Brown Face, when children shout the book’s final line — That face in the mirror belongs to ME! — it’s all about self-affirmation. Pretty Brown Face was recently picked up by Netflix as part of their Bookmarks: Celebrating Black Voices line up. R&B singer Jill Scott delivers a beautiful on-camera reading of the story. Jill’s soul-rousing rendition makes us burst into tears every time we hear it!
Andrea, you were at the forefront of the BIPOC imprint movement. Tell us about that. What was the biggest benefit back then, and how are today’s BIPOC imprints impacting the publishing landscape?
Andrea: In 1997, I was invited by Lisa Holton to launch the Jump at the Sun imprint at Disney’s Hyperion Books for Children. Lisa has always been a forward-thinking visionary. Jump at the Sun was the first of its kind – a children’s book imprint at a major publishing company that ushered in the work of Black authors and artists, and that published books core to the Black experience. Early on, Lisa and I talked about what the imprint’s success factors would be. There were five essential ingredients: 1. The books needed to be authentic to the lives of Black children and families; 2. Books would be written and illustrated by Black creators, many of them new to the field (Jump at the Sun opened the door to a cadre of debut authors and illustrators who’d been turned away elsewhere); 3. We were committed to publishing across genres to address the lack of representation in a multitude of formats – board books, commercial series, literary novels, narrative nonfiction, fantasy. 4. Disney put their money where their mission was. It was vital that each Jump at the Sun book had a strategic marketing plan that would reach Black kids and families. 5. Quality came first. By virtue of the excellent storytelling and exceptional art included in our books, they reached a broad customer base. Novels like Sharon Flake’s groundbreaking The Skin I’m In was a global bestseller that has been embraced by readers of all races. The same was true for the Cheetah Girls books, which went on to become a mega-hit series of Disney Channel original movies. The books that spawned the movies and concert tours are popular with teens of all races because the characters and stories go straight to the hearts of kids. The BIPOC imprints publishers are launching now have brought an exciting dimension to the publishing landscape. Kids of every color, orientation, and ability want these books!
Major publishers are proactively establishing imprints to address a need in the market. What is the biggest benefit you see for your readers? Do you think your work is accessible and relevant to non-African American readers?
Denene: Absolutely! I’m grateful to Simon & Schuster Books for Young Readers for seeing the necessity and beauty of signing Denene Millner Books to its roster of imprints. I think there’s something to be said for the company, which, in publishing DMB books and putting its production, marketing and publicity power—and money!—behind my imprint, is showing its commitment to bringing diverse books to all children. With DMB on its roster, along with Salaam Reads, which focuses on books featuring Muslim children and families, there’s no question where the company’s commitment lies, and we should be celebrating this because let’s be honest: the numbers of books featuring Black characters, written by Black authors and illustrated by Black artists are still miniscule. That’s a shame in 2021, and I’d like to think S&S and DMB are doing our part to change that in some way. Of course, Black children win when they can see themselves on the page, but all the other children and caregivers who see these stories can use them to get to know us in an intimate way that they may not necessarily have access to in everyday life. A child who sees a book like Me & Mama can relate to the story because it is about a little girl who loves every second of the day she gets to spend alone with her mother. But she also can look at that story and see that Black children love doing the same, a concept that, on its face, isn’t foreign, but can feel like it if you put all of mainstream media together and are looking for images/stories like this. My Rainy Day Rocket Ship does the same, as it shows everyone that Black boys have imaginations and love the same things as every other little boy—and girl—does: dreaming, being creative with their play, being supported by their parents, making their own fun. Maybe a non-African American child could identify with that and then head out to the playground, see a kid who looks like the adorable character Markette Sheppard that Charly Palmer created, and think to make friends with that child because he reminds him of the kid in that book. Kids really do think that simply–that easily. I love that about the books we’re creating at Denene Millner Books.
As an author-illustrator team, how much creative input did you have over the content and publishing direction of the Bright Brown Baby books?
Andrea and Brian: Typically, authors and illustrators don’t collaborate. The editor in a publishing house serves as the author-illustrator go-between. It seems counter-intuitive, but makes perfect sense. By not being in direct contact, an author and illustrator can each exercise their respective creative visions without being impacted by the opinions of the other. In our case, though, we’ve got a unique situation – we’re married! The creation of the Bright Brown Baby books has been a wholly collaborative process between us, Liza Baker, Patti Ann Harris, Senior Designer Doan Buu, and our agent Rebecca Sherman, who provided early creative feedback. Folks say it takes a village to raise a child. The Bright Brown Baby publishing “village” was vital in bringing these books to the world. Each of us plays an essential role in the project, and at the same time, it’s the collaborative teamwork that gives rise to the books.
We believe you are Black History in the making and are grateful for the work you are doing in children’s book publishing. As we all celebrate Black History Month in the United States, how are you observing the accomplishments of those who came before you and how can we all make a greater commitment to diversity – in February and beyond?
Denene: Oh man, that makes my heart beat fast. I’m super passionate about this work and I don’t really look at myself in that way; I just love children, I love Black people and my culture, I adore children’s books and it makes my heart happy to add to the canon. Observing and celebrating the accomplishments of those who came before me is something I do every day, not just in February, because we are important–we mean something to me. Publishers like Wayne and Cheryl Hudson of Just Us Books have been inspirations to me since the second I found out I was pregnant with my first daughter back in 1998, because they have been doing the work to bring Black books to the masses. Authors like Eloise Greenfield, Ashley Bryant, Jason Reynolds, Jacqueline Woodson and the like are my heroes because their dedication to telling our stories is authentic and unwavering and beautiful. I observe their accomplishments by buying multiple copies of their books and giving them away to children who I know would love them. And I honor the ancestors by dedicating every second of every day of my writing, editing and publishing life celebrating our lives–our humanity. And making sure that our babies do the same.
Andrea and Brian: At home, we celebrate Black history every single day. The same can be true of all readers and writers. By being intentional about building a home library that includes an array of titles reflecting a multifaceted mix of experiences, each of us can become active practitioners of diversity and inclusion. And there’s an important distinction between having Black books and engaging with them. All books are like light bulbs. They need to be plugged in to access their power.
BIOGRAPHY – Andrea Davis Pinkney and Brian Pinkney
Andrea Davis Pinkney and Brian Pinkney have made an outstanding contribution to the field of children’s literature both as individuals and as a team. Between them, they have published more than seventy children’s books that have received the highest awards and accolades, including Caldecott Honors, Coretta Scott King Awards, and multiple NAACP Image Award nominations. The husband-and-wife collaborators have been named among the “25 Most Influential People in our Children’s Lives” by Children’s Health magazine.
BIOGRAPHY – Denene Millner
Denene Millner is the New York Times best-selling author of 31 books, among them Act Like a Lady, Think Like a Man, co-written with Steve Harvey, Around the Way Girl, a memoir with actress Taraji P. Henson and The Vow, the novel on which the hit Lifetime movie, “With This Ring,” was based. She also is the editorial director of Denene Millner Books, a Simon & Schuster imprint that publishes books featuring African American children and families. In the imprint’s debut year, “Crown: An Ode to the Fresh Cut,” won Newbery and Caldecott honors and the Kirkus Prize for Children’s Literature. In its debut year with Simon & Schuster, “Me & Mama” won a Caldecott Honor and a Coretta Scott King Award Honor for illustration. In 2008, she founded MyBrownBaby.com, a critically acclaimed blog that examines the intersection of parenting and motherhood through the multi-cultural experience. Under Millner’s leadership, MyBrownBaby has won numerous awards and worked with some of the top brands in the world, from Disney to Target and many more, solidifying it as one of the most respected and celebrated niche blogs on the web. Millner frequently contributes as an entertainment writer to national publications, and has written for Essence, NPR, Redbook and Glamour. Her extensive television experience includes appearances on the Today show, HLN, NPR and MSNBC. She also is co-host of Georgia Public Broadcasting’s “A Seat at the Table,” a talk show about black women, and host of the podcast “Speakeasy with Denene,” a celebration of the beauty of the African American experience. Her latest offering, “The Fresh Princess: Style Rules,” the second in a series inspired by Will Smith’s iconic character, debuted in April 2020. Her upcoming novel, “One Blood,” a mult-generational epic about motherhood, adoption and race, was recently pre-empted by St. Martin’s Press in the U.S. and Borough Press in the U.K., and it is slated to be published in eight countries when it debuts in 2022. She lives in Atlanta with her two daughters.
BIOGRAPHY – TeMika Grooms
TeMika Grooms is an Atlanta-based painter, illustrator, and arts advocate. Her painterly style is evident in her illustrations, fine art, and murals as she incorporates expressive movement and a strong sense of line in her work. Digital art has also given her another medium to explore while still maintaining the look and feel of traditional medium. TeMika is exploring the use of technology in art by creating digital paintings and surveying new avenues to bring interactive art to the public.
Her artistic practice has allowed her to work as a teaching artist and develop programs to support brands in being change agents in society. TeMika was selected for the international 2008 Taller Norte Portobelo Artist-in-Residence program in Portobelo, Panama. She presented as a teaching artist to Spanish-speaking children on a collaborative, illustrated, sequential art project. Most recently, TeMika partnered with Microsoft to present art-based workshops and currently works with the Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators (SCBWI) Board of Advisors Equity and Inclusion Committee to impact the inclusion of diverse voices in children’s book publishing industry.